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About this text

  • Title: The Famous Victories of Henry V: Introduction
  • Author: Mathew Martin
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best
  • Production editor: Peter Cockett

  • Copyright Mathew Martin. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Mathew Martin
    Editors (Text): Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Famous Victories of Henry V: Introduction

    1The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth: Basic Facts

    According to modern scholars, the anonymous The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, written and first performed in the mid-1580s, is "our earliest extant English history play" (Adams 667), a dramatic genre that Shakespeare and other playwrights would take up and make arguably the most popular kind of play on the stage in the following decade. The play, then, stands at the beginning of an impressive dramatic tradition that includes the plays for which it is often treated as merely the source, Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. Famous Victories, though, is in no sense merely primitive or naîve raw material. It was written for an elite acting company, the Queen's Men, who were "the best known and most widely travelled professional company in the kingdom" (McMillin and MacLean 67) and had been given a complex ideological mandate that their plays had to negotiate, which included "increas[ing] the prestige of their patron" Elizabeth and "harness[ing] the theatre in the service a moderate Protestant ideology" (McMillin and MacLean 24). Along with romances, moralities, and magician plays, history plays like Famous Victories were part of the company's propaganda effort.

    As various parts of this introduction will demonstrate, however, Famous Victories's treatment of history is not ideologically passive. Certainly, overall the play presents a positive picture of the Lancastrian hero, Henry V, from whom Elizabeth traced in part her royal descent, while minimizing attention to the dubious means by which his father, Henry IV, acquired the English crown. Nonetheless, the play does not eliminate all critique from its dramatization of Elizabeth's illustrious ancestor and his martial accomplishments, critique that in various direct and indirect ways might have been perceived as not entirely flattering reflections on the contemporary historical and political situation too. Likewise, in keeping with its mandate to promulgate a moderate Protestant ideology, the play avoids the divisive religious issues of Henry's reign, namely the rebellion and martyrdom of the Wycliffite proto-reformer Sir John Oldcastle (the character Jockey in the play), in order to present a religiously unified English nation in conflict with its national other, the French. Nonetheless, the play foregrounds another deep fissure within the English nation, that of class, in its adroit and critically pointed mixing of historical and comic characters and events. In the interactions between the play's historical, upper-class characters and its lower-class, comic characters ("clowns" like Derrick and John), the play both acknowledges the existence of a class hierarchy and exposes its gross unfairness, in times of peace as well as in times of war. The play also does not shy away from representing the gender inequities at work in war, or at least in the distribution of war's spoils: the romance of the play's concluding marriage may work to ameliorate the harsh realities of conquest for a woman in Princess Katherine's position, but in the process the play allows Katherine to articulate (to Henry and to the audience) the meaning of those harsh realities for her and gives her a measure of agency in her efforts to negotiate those realities in pursuit of both her own desire and her country's good.

    Famous Victories, then, may be partisan; it is, however, in no way jingoistic. This general contention will developed throughout the introduction, which is divided into the following six sections: Who Was Henry V?; Famous Victories and Its Sources; History and Comedy: Clowning in Famous Victories; Famous Victories and the Elizabethan Context: Empire, Invasion, Succession; Famous Victories and Shakespeare's History Plays; Famous Victories and Modern Performance.